Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity
27th Jul 2014
Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity Year A
“…And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit”.
In today’s reading we come to know that The Church from the beginning had always considered its authority to be a spiritual authority which governed the hearts and minds of the faithful. All other earthly authorities were considered significant but secondary to the one which owed our lives and our lives purposes to God alone. In our first reading the King Solomon asks God not for riches or power but for wisdom. He is granted wisdom because he understands wisdom. And this wisdom is the one in which consideration of God’s presence and purpose in life lies foremost in the mind and the heart and colours and shapes all life. But in contemporary society and in the wake of Richard Dawkins and his idea of ‘The God Delusion’, faith and trust in God is being eroded because its existence is undermined by doubt and cynicism. More than ever the Christian Church needs to be seen and heard for the joyful faith that its practices and for the deep wisdom that is embedded in the Christ who has offered himself unto death in the service of others.
Yesterday I walked into St Peter’s Church Belsize Park. It is a very large mid-Victorian Anglican Gothic Church. I was there yesterday to attend an Ethiopian Orthodox liturgy on their Feast of St Gabriel. The church was full to bursting with at least 3 or 400 people, almost all dressed in white and already hours into a liturgy that had begun with fasting at 3 am that morning. The place was stiflingly hot and as soon as I entered the building I was asked by a veiled woman to remove my shoes, and then I was led to the sanctuary where many deacons and priests and bishops presided over a liturgy which was both formal and informal. Formal in that it was purposeful and full of song and dance and prayer with drums and cymbals. Informal in that the clergy seemed to decide upon what they should do next through a series of facial and hand gestures. One of the priests took me aside and explained to me that this Ethiopian Orthodox Liturgy was practised in the first century after the Resurrection of Christ, and it had not changed. This ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Church pre-dates the Latin Catholic church by centuries. I had arrived at a certain time but the liturgy was to continue for longer than I think anyone expected, with a Eucharistic sharing and even a wedding taking place with bride and groom wearing crowns and dressed in white as virgins. It was though one was entering into a church which had never lost its sense of itself with the passage of time. It was like stepping into another world and another place in time. The joy and the sheer passion and fervour with which the liturgy was celebrated was deeply inspiriting and very moving. It provided for me a reminder of the holiness of the Christian Church and of its obligation to remain true to its holy calling. Its worship should be a heart-felt expression of thanksgiving for the love of God and not, as may so often happen, an event which may engage the mind and certain surface attention, but not feed the soul and the deeper sense in which God’s holy presence is offered to us as a living miracle. It should exist of itself before ever our own meanings are attached to its actions.
I hear the words from our epistle this morning, the words of encouragement and instruction which St Paul gives to the embattled Christian community in Rome. They are words which direct the believer to a surer knowledge and experience of God who lies closer to the heart of our being than we are ever prepared to allow. These words direct us to attend to the existence of God whose presence and purposes lie in the here and now and yet who is all mystery and who is sensed in ways and places subliminal to our ready knowledge of things. “And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the spirit”. “Bidden or not bidden”, said Jung, “God is present”.
For God’s presence is truth-bearing and truth-making. And as such it is liberating and refreshing. It gives newness of life. This is not the kind of truth which is self-justifying, but the truth which liberates you from your own vanity. No wonder then, that Solomon when asked by God what he might be given asks merely for ‘the discernment to judge between what is good and evil’. In his existing wisdom, Solomon’s request is the one echoed in an old and often recited prayer. This is the one which says “May the divine assistance remain with us always, and may the souls of the faithful through the mercy of God rest (or remain) in peace. This, I once thought, was a prayer for the dead. But it is a prayer for those of us very much alive. Peace is the gift given to the one for whom real life is the one lived in co-habitation and co-operation with the Creator God in Jesus Christ. The blessed life is the one which remains open to the possibility of the divine assistance. This is a call to see God in all things and in all people, and to see the world as it is and find that expression which divines the world’s true being.
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Triniy
20th Jul 2014
A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity Year A
Your sovereignty over all makes you lenient to all. Wisdom 12.13
The Parable of the wheat and the tares places before us a world of stark contrasts. And we are being introduced to the idea of creative and fruitful and growing elements having to survive alongside the elements that choke and suffocate and undermine. If God’s power is all love, then we might be frustrated with the fact that we meet people who are hard to deal with, to be with, who are violent and maybe even do bad, and there are people we find unlovely and off-putting and threatening. They may simply just be not ‘our cup of tea’. We seem to wish them away, far from us. But The Christian Church was never a sect, an enclosed group of the like-minded or the same feeling. The Kingdom of God is the field and the tares where both are grown together. The field has not been burnt to begin again with only the wheat. For God is not a nanny and nor is the Christian Church a kind of nursery or as the French say a ‘cordon sanitaire’ quite apart from the uncomfortable people and the uncomfortable realities that lie all around us.
This can be especially true for the placing of this church, Holy Cross, in Cromer Street, King’s Cross. We have a beautiful church, and its beauty manifests itself in both in contrast and as a compliment to the area around it. On a daily basis we clean up rubbish left, sweep up bottles smashed and clear up messes I won’t describe to you some of the messes because they are very unpleasant. I have become more and more sure during my time here that this church owes its identity and character within the varied social milieu that it occupies. The ‘cure of souls’ is the one which knows no departure from the expression of active love and understanding tolerance. It calls for the Church’s ‘at-oneness’ with its people and surroundings. But we do well to pause before we assume that our own Church’s membership forms us together as a mixture of wheat only! We form part of the one same field – and our characters with their flaws are there, too. We are not so terribly Christian after all… Some strong pastoral advice given to a parish priest through a poem:
Did you say something?
Don’t be too hard on them, there were people here
Before these and they were no better.
And there’ll be people after maybe, and they’ll be
No better; it is the earth’s way
Of dealing with time’s attrition. RS Thomas
God’s ways are not our ways. The instruction we need in our churches is not the exhortation to counsels of perfection. Rather, we need to uphold a high doctrine of the Incarnation as it is found in the rough and readiness of our common humanity. This is a humanity prone to mistakenness, obstinacy, bad humour and misunderstanding, impatience, bad judgement, and often carelessness. In this parable of the wheat and tares we see that God allows good and bad, the rough and the smooth to grow together. God is not partial, and the sending of His Son is for the broadening and the deepening and the increase in the enhanced understanding of our human condition. This is to own The Church as a mutually dependent divinely ordered society, where none is before or after the other and where each occupies a significant place in the Church’s life. This may stretch our limited reserves of tolerance to the full! But so be it. Here lies the way for The Church to be radically inclusive and to reveal that it is not a sect but a body of people, the Body of Christ, a flesh and blood Church with a real human heart.
If Jesus tells us that ‘the poor you always have with you’ then he also implies that we too are poor. Membership of Christ’s Church involves us in the action of mutual recognition of those around us and of the reality of their own loves and longings. Of the complexity and unfathomability of the inner life of the other despite recourse to analysis. Too often our own view of the world can colour itself as a pale reflection of what really lies around us - a reflection too of our own personal preferences. The reality of the inner life of others and of their struggles may manifest itself in ways we find strange and awkward. But we must nonetheless continue to attend to them, and to do this patiently and with loving perseverance. This attentive action exists as a kind of prayer for each and all of us. It is a prayer which delivers cohesion and unity in the body of Christ, and is loving, too! This is not a unity which excludes others but which acts to draw all, as individuals and all together, more closely into the Body of Christ. It is the vital prayer for The Church’s life: love in action.
And so this parable, at first seeming a quaint old tale of the one who lets the wheat grow with the tares or weeds is powerful. It is powerful teaching for the description of the Kingdom of God which has to be worked out in the here and the now. This is so that its result may be manifest in the Kingdom to come. All have been given grace and provided with that field of vision which is for the compassionate and patient enlargement and the deepening of our sympathies for the manifestation of God’s glory in our own times...
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity
13th Jul 2014
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Trinity Year A
“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace” Romans 8.5
More than ever Christianity finds itself set within a sea of unbelief and is confronted by a whole new generation which remains, by and large, unchurched. Many find the idea of spirituality positive but religion or the Church, negative. Many baulk against what they call ‘organised religion’ and even those who call themselves churchgoers, do so only occasionally. In response to this many clergy choose to ‘dumb down’ Christian services to appeal to the lowest common denominator and offer an endless variety of ‘fresh expressions’ which might yield some increase but which in real terms, turn out to be ‘thin’ experiences which satisfy an itch but which do not feed the soul in the longer term. Services are offered at different times and places and this too is so often a chasing after the wind. The lurch toward a religion of convenience falls in with the consumer mentality that you only have to ‘give us what we want’ and all will be well. We see here a Church for which the majority choose very consciously and perhaps wisely, to ‘pass by on the other side’.
I don’t think any of this is new. The impetus of Jesus’ teaching regarding the sower and the seed is the one which responds to the very real and existent spiritual ambivolence of his day. But it also reminds us of the gift of faith which is as present as the seed is to the sower. Jesus knows at the very least that he is not ‘preaching to the converted’ but to a people whose lives are tough and whose outlook is realistic and who will not be fobbed off by religious platitudes. Having said this they are a people who seek God, in their own way have ‘ears to hear’ – they like us, have an instinct for a spiritual teaching which rings true both for their lives and for their understanding of God. The Church in our own time must not ignore the fact that its central task is not to find numerous ways to attract new followers but to teach and to practice the Christian Faith that it follows from the perspective of the spirit rather than the flesh. It must learn once more to be a one whose actions and outreach emerge out of a contemplative and prayerful base. Only then will its priorities remain sure and confident and hopeful.
It is for Christ that the Church sustains its life and this is Good News for all who come to seek God. And so the Church must not be blown away by the latest social statistics. A sure pathway for the Church is evident as it moves forward, and provided by Pope Francis. It is the one which expresses the never ending presence of God’s mercy. There is a ready acknowledgement here that Christian lives are not different from any other lives. But nor is lived in a straight line, and Christians who have found faith have not been magically relieved of life’s pain and conflict and complexity. Pope Francis found the image of the Virgin who unravels knots a particularly compelling one since it does not simplify our view of the Christian life but complexifies it. It acknowledges the many ways in which we experience our past as a rough, tough terrain which is in sore need of understanding and healing. Here lies an understanding of the Christian life with real life which understands human nature NOT from the starting point of perfectability but from an understanding of our vulnerability and the need for God’s mercy. And so in this sense the words from our Gospel ring particularly true That which is of the flesh is death, and that which is of God’s wellspring of mercy is spirit and life.
Paul Vallely’s biography of Pope Francis is entitled ‘Untying the Knots’ and the writing of this biography is not from the point of view of a life story which ascends to the present day on an ascending scale of achievement and perfectability but instead sees his life’s ministry as a flawed one in which grave mistakes have occasionally been committed. And Pope Francis is willing to admit to all this in a spirit of repentance, sure in the mercy of God, and ready to come to God each day as a Christian who is as the hymn says, ‘ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven’. Refreshed and healed. Made new to serve Him.
The parable of the sower and the seed is a reminder of that the Word of God and the individual’s often faltering Christian faith is exercised in a rough, tough environment. However, the seed of Christian Faith, planted in human hearts, is the one which, in the face of the dead hand of atheism and the sure measurements of social science, stands for lives which which may find the sure promise of our ultimate fulfilment in the One who provides for our truer destiny.
Author: From the Didache (1st Century)
Father, we thank Thee Who has planted
Thy holy name within our hearts.
Knowledge and faith and life immortal
Jesus Thy Son to us imparts.
Thou, Lord, didst make all for Thy pleasure,
Didst give man food for all his days,
Giving in Christ the bread eternal;
Thine is the pow'r, be Thine the praise.
Watch o'er Thy Church, O Lord, in mercy,
Save it from evil, guard it still,
Perfect it in love, unite it,
Cleansed and conformed unto Thy will.
As grain, once scattered on the hillsides,
Was in this broken bread made one,
So from all lands Thy church be gathered
Into Thy kingdom by Thy Son.
Sermon for the Third Sunday after Trinity
6th Jul 2014
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Zechariah 9:9-10 Romans 8:9, 11-13 Matthew 11:25-30
Three lessons can be learned from today’s Gospel: three qualities our Blessed Lord seeks in those who would be his followers. Jesus looks for simplicity, he looks for faith, and he looks for trust. It’s clear that he values simplicity in his disciples when he says, "I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned and have revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will." God’s grace is given in humility: simplicity of heart and mind. This is the foundation of our understanding of the nature of God in relation to us his creatures.
Gentle Jesus meek and mild
Look upon a little child
Pity my simplicity
Suffer me to come to thee. Charles Wesley.
The event which was the occasion for this remark of Jesus was the return of the 70 disciples after they had been sent by the Lord to preach the Gospel, to heal the sick and to cast out demons. They were ordinary folk like you and me; but in all simplicity, they opened their hearts to God’s grace, allowing him to work through them, so that his mercy might be made manifest in healing. When they returned, full of wonderful stories of success. "Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!" Jesus gives praise to the Father for revealing his power through them and the effectiveness of their witness. True simplicity is not only for those who live in humble circumstances. Simplicity is an attitude of mind. It means wearing your gifts and talents lightly, ascribing all that you have to the goodness and providence of God with a thankful heart and a spirit that knows peace. In this lies are true freedom, for without this we remain ungrateful or as one hymn puts it “frail earthen vessels and things of no worth”. We have been made in God’s image and we reflect that image in our own readiness to be open and seeing and hearing and in our dealings with others. In short, this means imitating the humility of Jesus as he is described by the prophet Zechariah in today’s first reading: "See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, Meek, and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass." It means that we return to the old Sunday School him and find in the gentle and meek Jesus that docility of spirit whose mind and heart is listening and alert and in essence, receptive. And so St Paul can say that this is a garment we must wear:
Put on therefore, as God's elect, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering… Colossian 3.12,
Our Gospel reveals that Christ looks also for faith in his followers. He makes a tremendous claim in this passage. He claims to be the Son of God: "All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him." Nowhere does Jesus make a greater claim than this. It is a sublime truth that the man Christ Jesus is in fact God the Son, the second Person of the Most Holy Trinity. But to receive this truth requires the gift of faith: no one can know this unique relationship between God the Father and his only-begotten Son except those "to whom the Son chooses to reveal him."
I always find hymns very encouraging, and particularly the singing of hymns, and even more particularly my favourite hymns are those which express something of our own unknowing in the face of the greatness of God. “How shall I sing that Majesty”, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise”, “Jerusalem the Golden” and others have all been written to express the strong sense of our own unknowing. But this is not a place of where all hope and longing is evacuated. No, in the faith of Christ our hope and our longing is mixed and merged with what in God we know and what we cannot know. Faith makes it possible, but not just faith alone, blind faith, but faith in and through Our Lord Jesus Christ and in and through his promise of mercy.
The Lord Jesus also looks for trust. He wants us to trust him enough to give him our burdens and to receive his refreshment in return: "Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."
This image of a yoke is a very beautiful one. A "yoke of oxen" was always a pair of animals joined together by a smoothly shaped piece of wood. This was the yoke. It was placed on the shoulders of the animals and fastened under their necks. By means of this simple apparatus, two oxen (with minds of their own) could work together, accomplishing with half the effort a difficult job such as plowing a field or pulling a heavy load. Typically, the two beasts of burden would be matched in strength and temperament and share the burden together. The yoke is that which is embelmatic of a burden shared “bare one anthers burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ”. In this we adopt the servant’s role, and the gentleness and meekness, especially in the face of human antagonism or resentment if transforming of relationships because it is a transforming of their understanding.
Today, once again, we hear this generous invitation from our Blessed Lord: Learn from me to be simple, "for I am meek and humble of heart." Learn from me to have faith, because I have revealed my Father to you. And learn from me to trust, because "my yoke is easy and my burden is light." Let us then learn these things, that we may fulfil the great words of St Augustine “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless ‘til they find their rest in thee’.